Sound Bites: A Q&A with Music Educator Tim Simmons

In Blog, MfP Stories, Teaching Music Improv by jan_mfp

Tim Simmons believes music comes from the musician, not the instrument. “There’s a song in everyone,” says the affable multi-instrumentalist, who teaches music in grades 1-12 at Delaware Valley Friends School near Philadelphia. “As a result, anything can be a musical instrument.”

Simmons will elaborate on this idea during the final installment of Music for People (MfP)’s Innovative Educator Series on Sunday, May 2. Specifically, he will lead an online session titled “Connecting the Mind and Body Through Music.” 

A graduate of MfP’s Musicianship and Leadership Program (MLP), Simmons insists that the mind-body connection—the link between a person’s thoughts, feelings and behavior and their physical symptoms—has a place in almost any classroom. By itself, the mind-body connection can promote critical thinking, effective communication and creative problem solving, he explains. “Combined with music, it can foster confidence and a sense of community.”

We recently caught up with Simmons, a standout percussionist and former English teacher, to discuss the role of creativity in the classroom.

How has COVID-19 changed the way you teach music?
For the past decade, I have been developing a music curriculum for adolescents with language-based learning differences. Much of my focus has been on music improvisation and personal interaction. But when COVID hit, I had to re-imagine what improvisation looked like in an online environment. Most of our initial activities were simple, because of internet latency. 

Now with in-person classes, I’ve had to rethink my approach again while still providing opportunities for movement, singing and personal interaction. I teach a lot outdoors, often using instruments that can be cleaned without becoming damaged.

How have your students responded?
They’re more confident because I’m more confident. Ours is an inclusive Quaker community. Every one of my students has some kind of challenge—dyslexia, ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder], executive function disorder, auditory processing disorder or some nonverbal learning disorder. Therefore, I rely heavily on technology to help them understand how music works. I use applications like Noteflight, BandLab, Logic Pro and ToneSavvy, all of which are perfect for my population. 

What is the role of the music in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] learning?
One way I teach music is through instrument building, in which we learn about the science of sound. My younger students especially like it because they can make instruments out of almost anything—”guiro” shakers from water bottles and lap steel guitars from two-by-fours, old guitar string and metal eye hooks. The process is fun and inexpensive. 

What do you say to people who claim they aren’t musical?
Neurologically, there is little difference between music and language. Studies show that music is a universal language. Our ancestors probably were singing long before they knew how to string words together. Music is part of our humanity. Like language, it uses sounds to represent ideas and events. 

One way to tap into in your creativity is to make a sound that expresses who you are and how you are feeling. There are no wrong notes because “wrong notes” don’t exist. They’re merely labels.

How do you teach improvisation?
Whenever you talk to someone, you’re improvising. That makes us all master improvisers. Improvising is simply listening to what others are saying and then responding to them as honestly and authentically as possible. The voice is a great place to start. 

How does the mind-body connection work in the classroom?
There are two ways that music and language intersect in the brain. One way is through beat synchronization, the process by which we synchronize bodily movements to a musical beat. The other way is through melodic perception, which involves prosody, a concept referring to changes in pitch, volume and duration. Neuroscience shows that we process melody and prosody in the same way. Cognitive training in one domain, like music, can easily affect another, such as language. The physical body is the bridge between the two areas.

We engage our brain in different ways when we make music. In the process, we strengthen our expressive and receptive language. As [MfP Co-Founder] David Darling used to say, expression begins with One Quality Sound.

Author: Robert Enslin